Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Bigger is better?

Every now and then there’s a splash about the sheer number of administrators in higher education – see, for example, Registrarism’s post in February 2014 picking up on a scare story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  If you set aside the nostalgia for imagined lost days of senior common rooms, pliant students and No Administrators, there is a an interesting question about how much universities actually spend.

In the UK at least this is public data, from HESA.  I looked at the proportion of staff spend by UK universities which was not on academic staff.  I excluded staff spend on premises (ie estates and facilities management) and residences because these are sometimes contracted out, which would skew the data.  And I plotted this data, for 2011-12, against total income of institutions in that same year.  The resulting chart can be found via the Resources page on hughjonesconsulting.co.uk, here.

And what do we see?  Well, there does seem to be a correlation between scale and less spend on professional service staff.  (Remember – correlation does not imply causality, although as Edward Tufte observes, it sure is a hint.)  But what a variation there is too – spend is pretty much all over the place.

It’s important not to jump to conclusions about this.  Importantly, there’s no data here about the quality of the service provided, and maybe you get more and better if you spend more.  And UK universities aren’t all the same, and don’t operate in a vacuum.  So, I’d want to look at subject mix; location; research-intensiveness; and history (because patterns of spend tend to lock themselves in over the years; and because many universities saw their unit of resources squeezed by late 1980’s and early 1990’s public funding mechanisms).

But there’s also food for thought.  Are you above the line or below it?

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